Sunday 10 July 2011

Cendrillon at Covent Garden

My familiarity with Massenet's Cendrillon is relatively limited. I remember reading glowing reviews for the 1993 production by WNO and I eventually got to see the opera at the Royal Academy of Music in 2005, notable for Julia Riley's Prince Charming. Chelsea Opera Group also did a notable concert performance in 2008. Laurent Pelly's production at the Royal Opera House (seen 7th July) was the first there. The production was originally performed at Santa Fe in 2006 and has been revived by Pelly as a co-production between Covent Garden, the Liceu, the Monnaie and Lille. At Covent Garden, the title role was played by Joyce DiDonato who had appeared in the Santa Fe production.

Barbara de Limburg's sets were all based around the idea of a story book, telling the original Perrault tale. There was no curtain, just the pages of a book which opened to reveal the whole stage, All the action was wittily contained within the words of the book; words were a feature of the whole production, Cendrillon's coach was formed from the word Carosse, the chairs all had initials on the back which were eventually lined up to spell Cendrillon, etc. But within this concept, the stage area was in fact quite large and bare; it is perhaps significant that the Covent Garden stage is rather bigger than that at Santa Fe.

The first half culminated in the ball and Cendrillon's precipitate exit, but the majority of time was spent in her house. Though Massenet's music delineates the characters nicely, this made for a rather slow start. Jean-Philippe Lafont was a disappointing Pandolfe (Cendrillon's father), with a fine stage manner but a rather obtrusive vibrato. In contrast Ewa Podles was a delight as Madame de la Haltiere, the wicked stepmother. Wearing an outrageous costume, with heavily padded hips to give her a caricature like figure. The step sisters, Madeleine Pierard and Kai Ruutel, had similarly over the top outlines, looking rather like wrapped boiled sweets.

Joyce DiDonato's Cendrillon made her first appearance out of a cupboard door in the scenery and created an appealing figure. But frankly I was quite pleased when the Fairy Godmother appeared. Sung by Eglise Gutierrez, the role is full of coloratura and Gutierrez looked ravishing but did not quite seem at complete ease with the passage work.

The majority of the ball scene was taken up with a long dance sequence which showcased Pelly's costumes with outrageous silhouettes. But eventually we did get to the lovely duet for DiDonato and Alice Coote's Prince Charming. For the first time we got a taste of the Massenet familiar from his big romantic operas.

In the second half things got a little darker, with Cendrillon leaving her home and going off to the enchanted forest to die. This forest seemed to be a roofscape and here Cendrillon meets the Fairy Godmother who allows her and Prince Charming to hear each other and sing another passionate duet. Reaching the climax took a little time but all reached a satisfying conclusion.

As you have probably gathered, I was a little less than charmed with the performance of the opera. It seemed to have rather less substance to it than when I heard it earlier. Somehow there were longeurs between the passionate sections. And whilst Podles seemed to have a nice gift for comedy, a little of her Madame de la Haltiere went a long way.

Ultimately, for me, the production was a little to cute and clever for its own good, though there were some lovely moments mainly the scene between DiDonato and Coote. The Royal Opera orchestra under Bertrand de Billy provided a stylish account of Massenet's score.

I'm still sure that there is a charming opera in Cendrillon, but I don't think that I saw it at Covent Garden.

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